Last Updated: March 2016
There’s something I really enjoy about the city of Hanoi. The gritty, compact, bustling atmosphere is exciting! There’s street food everywhere, complete with little tables and chairs, and you can smell all of the different types of food while walking through the city.
There are more motorcycles than I ever thought possible: It’s like playing a real life or death game of frogger every time you cross the street. The locals are friendly and will always greet you with a smile. After leaving the polluted, concrete juggle that is Eastern China, Hanoi was a welcome burst of new sensations: smells, tastes, and adrenaline.
My first country in Southeast Asia, there’s just so many things to do in Vietnam! But for me, Hanoi was the perfect start to my Vietnamese adventure.
48 Hours in Hanoi
Arriving in Hanoi
After a 5-hour layover in Hong Kong, I couldn’t wait to get to Hanoi. But when I went to check into my hostel, I was informed that because I was the only girl in a 6-person dorm room, they would me moving me to a single in the hostel across the street!
I was super excited about the complimentary upgrade and grateful to not have to put up with anyone else’s noise or sleep schedules. This is probably the first time it’s really paid off to be a single woman abroad. Yay for gender stereotypes that for once work out in my favor!
Once I cleaned up after a long flight and layover, I headed out to the street and stumbled on street pho. While my hometown of Seattle is known for incredible Vietnamese food, the Northwest has nothing on the streets of Hanoi. I slurped down chicken pho and an ice cold beer for just about $2!
Hanoi Kids Tour
For my fist full day in Hanoi, my friends and I booked a city tour with a group called Hanoi Kids, a club made up of college students that give free tours to foreign visitors. Their goal is to meet people from around the world while also practicing their English.
If you’d like to book a tour with Hanoi Kids, make sure you do it at least a few weeks in advance so you don’t miss out!
In the morning I woke up bright and early and ran through the busy alleyway streets to meet up with the rest of my group and our lovely tour guides, two Freshman girls from the local university. If you book a tour through Hanoi Kids, you can create your own itinerary, or leave it up to the locals. It was our first full day, so we told the girls to take us to their favorite tourist sites in the city.
The great thing about Hanoi is that you can walk almost anywhere. The group of us trekked across Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, which unfortunately was closed for Tet, the Vietnamese name for Lunar New Year. We were able to take a few pictures outside, which will have to do for now.
The Hanoi Presidential Palace
After the mausoleum, we walked a bit further to the Presidential Palace. Originally the home of the French Governor-General of Indochina, the Palace is a beautiful bright shade of yellow. While you can’t enter inside, the grounds are breathtaking. We were also able to take a tour of Ho Chi Minh’s home!
During his time as president, Ho Chi Minh refused to live in the Presidential Palace, opting to live in the ground keepers home until a traditional stilt house could be built. To Ho Chi Minh, the Presidential Palace was a symbol of the bourgeoisie French culture and was only used to receive official guests. The traditional stilt house is a replica of the type of house in which Ho Chi Minh resided while taking refuge as an anti-French revolutionary in Vietnam’s northwest.
There are two rooms in the house and no toilet, and underneath the house, Ho Chi Minh built an office to receive guests. Overall it was a very informative visit and it was interesting to listen to our Hanoi Kids tour guides describe Ho Chi Minh with awe and reverence.
If you visit the Presidential Palace keep in mind it is open from 7:30-4 with a lunch break from 11-1:30. You also have to cover your shoulders: no tank tops for boys or girls, but shorts are okay.
Temple of Literature
After the Palace, the group of us went to the Temple of Literature. This temple is a Confucian temple, so it is very similar to a lot of temples in China, and even has Chinese characters and calligraphy inscribed on stones and signs throughout.
If you haven’t been to China, I’d definitely recommend checking this temple out. Confucianism values family and knowledge above all else, hence the emphasis on literature at this particular temple. The most interesting aspect of the temple for me were the stones listing the names of Vietnamese men who had passed the national exam. While I knew these exams existed in China, I had no idea they existed in Vietnam as well!
The Grueling Confucian Exams in Vietnam
In these exams, thousands of men take a multi-day long Confucian literature test in which only a small fraction passed. If you were able to pass the local test, you could move on to the provincial test, and eventually the national test.
Passing these tests was harder than getting into Harvard and only the wealthiest residents could ever afford to study for them.
Many men spent their entire lives studying for these tests and never passed. I even read a novel in my Chinese literature class where the main character goes insane and drowns himself because he wasn’t able to pass the test year after year, bringing shame on his family.
Only those that passed the tests could become government officials; your official ranking was determined by which tests you were able to pass. It was really interesting to learn that Vietnam also practiced these Confucian exams. I had no idea that Confucianism had reached Vietnamese society.
Sipping on Weasel Coffee
From the moment I touched down in Hanoi, I was waiting for some Vietnamese coffee. While cafes are popping up all over China, they’re insanely expensive and are viewed as a luxury. Vietnam is known throughout Asia for it’s cheap, fresh coffee, and I honestly couldn’t wait to get my hands on a cup!
After the tour, our Hanoi Kids friends gave us directions to a coffee shop that sells beans and lets you taste their different varieties. The most famous Vietnamese variety: Weasel Coffee.
There are a lot of interesting facts about Vietnam, but I would say the indulgence in Weasel Coffee is definitely the strangest!
What is Weasel Coffee? Well, in the wild, weasels will select only the best coffee beans to eat, but their bodies can’t digest the beans so they poop them out whole. Weasel Coffee is made with coffee beans that have been eaten and pooped out by weasels! Seriously.
On the jar of beans, they even have a drawing of a weasel pooping out coffee beans! The Vietnamese do their coffee in the slow-drip variety, which is really easy to make. I purchased my own genuine bag of ground weasel coffee along with a tin slow drip set to bring home to China. No more insta-lattes for me!
Hanoi Hilton: The Hanoi Prison Museum
For my next full day in Hanoi, I visited the Prison Museum, or “Hanoi Hilton” as it was called in the Vietnam War. This prison is famous for housing John McCain when he was a pilot in the war!
The original building has been converted into a museum, but some of the original cells and shackles are still there. When I arrived, I was expecting a dark, concrete, drab prison, but what I found was more of a light, airy house.
Don’t let first impressions fool you though, this prison was not a fun place to be. What I didn’t realize was that this prison was originally built by the French to house Vietnamese revolutionaries. Rather than throwing prisoners in cells, the Vietnamese were shackled by the ankles to long boards like sardines.
While the men were shackled to planks, the women were thrown into a women’s cell that was so crowded people died of suffocation and lack of fresh air. There was also a lot of torture done by the French and there was even a guillotine!
The Politics of the Prison Museum
The major focus of the museum is, understandably, on the revolutionaries who were imprisoned there, rather than on the American fighter pilots. While the museum is arguably full of propaganda, it makes sense that the Vietnamese would want to display their revolutionary struggle and honor the people who died fighting for revolution.
The majority of propaganda seen in the museum is in the small section dedicated to the American fighter pilots imprisoned after Ho Chi Minh gained control of the North.
While I’m all for trying to understand events from other cultures’ points of view, the exhibit really did make the prison sound like a “Hanoi Hilton” compared to how it was run under the French. There was no mention of the torture of pilots imprisoned there, which we all know exists just from looking at John McCain: he can barely move his head and neck after one of his shoulders was broken and his injuries went untreated.
International Relations is Never Simple
What I did notice was that while the North Vietnamese could have executed their prisoners of war, they chose not to. From what I could gather by the tone of the museum, Vietnam did this to create legitimacy. If they kept prisoners alive and conducted negotiations, eventually the world would have to recognize their claims.
It was very interesting to explore this museum as an American. Not to dive too deep into international politics, but I hold a firm belief that the Vietnam War is one of the greatest embarrassments in American history. This can be seen time and time again when America enters countries and overthrows “communists” to uphold dictators… just look at South America. While the Prison museum doesn’t quite tell the whole story, I respect their decision not to.
In all honesty, I’m really impressed by Vietnam’s current openness to Americans after we destroyed their country not too long ago. While atrocities happened on both sides, it was their home we destroyed, not ours.
While I felt a bit awkward visiting the museum, one of my friends had an interesting take as well. She is a Vietnamese-American and her parents are South Vietnamese refugees. It was interesting to listen to her describe how many of the South Vietnamese really wanted American intervention and felt the need to flee the country when the war was lost. I guess it’s never that simple.
Water Puppet Theater
On a lighter note, the last main thing I did in the city of Hanoi was attend a water puppet theater show! I didn’t quite know what to expect, but the show is listed on all the travel sites and in all the guide books, so I figured it was worth checking out. There is a large water puppet theater near the lake in downtown Hanoi, and there are shows all throughout the afternoon and evening.
While I went in with little expectations, I actually really enjoyed the show! It was like a traditional Chinese shadow puppet opera show but much better!
I’m not a huge fan of Chinese opera and the ear-shattering singing, but I actually really enjoyed Vietnamese opera. The puppets are three-dimensional, moving puppets that swim, float and bob up and down in the shallow water. Puppeteers control the puppets using sticks while standing behind a curtain. There is also a full band of musicians and singers that accompany the performances.
Rather than one large story, the show consists of smaller stories and songs. Some of the scenes are funny and depict fisherman failing at catching fish while splashing around water, while others are dramatic with low lighting, sparklers, smoke, and fire! Overall, it was really great and I 100% recommend attending a show.
If you want to attend a show, get your tickets at least a few hours in advance or even a day early if you’re coming at a busy time! I went back to Hanoi in March 2016 and it was difficult to get tickets!
Hanoi is Well Worth a Visit
While you might be tempted to skip Hanoi in favor of the larger Saigon and Vietnam’s incredible beaches, Hanoi shouldn’t be missed! With the incredible history, food, coffee and people- you could spend a week in Hanoi alone. But if you only have 48 hours, I hope this post helps you make the most of your visit!